Your Turn by David Patrick OC
They heard a thump. Paul glanced at his wife. ‘It’s your turn,’ Jane said without looking up from her magazine. They both knew it was his turn, but she just wanted to make sure he knew the terms were non-negotiable.
Paul gave a guttural rumble, half sigh, half grumble. ‘What now?’ he whinned as he inched off the seat and attempted to stretch some life into his body. The effort only reminded him how weary he felt. He stifled a yawn as he covered the length of the hallway.
A quick shuffling of feet came from Clara’s bedroom. ‘The little monster,’ he complained, but there was no real anger behind his words.
Paul arrived home from work an hour and a half before Clara’s bedtime. During those brief tokens together she was so full of life and amusement. All she wanted to do was play, but he was usually too physically exhausted and mentally drained to be much use to anyone. Although he cherished her and appreciated every opportunity they had together, sometimes he wished she were already asleep by the time he got home. He hated his own selfishness for feeling that way, but it was, nevertheless, the truth.
On his weekends off, he tried his best to make amends to her and Jane by packing as many activities in as possible, but like all good things the moments were fleeting.
Standing outside her room, he rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath and pushed the door open.
‘Why aren’t you asleep yet?’
Clara froze, startled. Her eyes shot to the toppled stool in the middle of the floor then back to him. After a moment’s hesitation, her excuse was seamless, ‘I’ve got the grizzlies.’ To stress the point she rapidly poked her two feet out from under the duvet. ‘Look Da,’ she said exaggerating a frown of disapproval. ‘There Da. Can you see ‘em?’ She wiggled the menacing culprits. ‘They’ve been keeping me a wake alllllll night!’
Paul gave a ‘tut’ and shook his head while righting the stool. It took every ounce of self-control to conceal a smile. ‘Hmmm….’ After plonking himself on the seat, he picked up each foot in turn and made a show of examining her miniature sausage-shaped digits. ‘Grizzlies?’ he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Clara nodded enthusiastically. ‘They’re at it again.’
‘I see.’ Paul began picking a minuscule bit of sock fluff from between two of her toes. Try as he might, he could not restrain her frantically twisting and kicking. ‘Now, just one more,’ he assured her between giggles.
‘No Da, stop, stop. Stop,’ she shrilled wildly.
‘Away with you, Grizzlies. Blasted things. Be gone and leave my girl alone!’ He scolded the offending cotton particle. Paul hoped he timed it well. Clara could only handle hysterical laughter for so long before it manifested into hiccups. Once they kicked in she would be up all night. The last episode of which was still fresh in his memory.
‘Now, are they all gone?’ he asked while dropping her feet.
‘Yes Da,’ she tittered before pulling Nuggy tightly to her chest. Her battle hardened teddy bear stared stoically with its remaining eye towards the safety of the wardrobe. The battered toy eerily sent a shiver up Paul’s spine. Despite it being an inanimate object something about its passiveness after all it had been through unnerved him a little.
‘Do you need to be changed?’
‘Naw. I’m dry.’
Toilet training commenced several months ago and she was doing great, but for bed times she still wore the protective Pull-ups just in case. Neither Paul nor Jane minded. They knew it would come to her in time.
Clara shook her head.
‘A bit. Can I have hot choc with mallows in it PLEEEEAse?’
‘Sorry, Pumpkin. All out of mallows, but there’s plenty of hot chocolate. Will that do?’
‘Ok,’ she gave in grudgingly.
It was a lie. Half a bag of marshmallows were hidden at the back of the cupboard. Paul and Jane agreed to cut back giving her too many sweets. Besides, Clara liked nothing better than waiting for the sugary cushions to semi-melt before using her fingers to dissect them piece by piece. Before long, traces of stringy pink marshmallows would be plastered all over her, the duvet and poor Nuggy.
Paul stood and made his way to the kitchen.
‘Hot choc?’ Jane asked as he passed the living room.
‘Tell her we’re out of mallows?’
Jane gave him the briefest of glances accompanied by a slight grin. He smirked back. Sometimes the simplest of exchanges carried a volume of worth. He shortly returned from the kitchen with Clara’s drink.
‘Get back into bed.’
Clara froze where she stood standing atop the small stool with arms suspended semi-stretched towards the upper shelf. Disappointment etched on her dainty face.
‘I just wan’ ta look at it.’
‘No, it’s too late. Back to bed with you.’ Paul tried to control his tone to sound definite: no-nonsense without coming across too bossy.
A moment touching sadness reached the mahogany pools of her eyes. Paul was surprised she did not cry or throw a fit. Sometimes her mood could shift and change without warning. Reluctantly, she climbed off the stool, and dragged her heals lazily to make the five footsteps towards her bed last a lifetime. Once she reached it, however, she scrambled across the mattress and snuggled under her duvet. ‘Okaaaay, Da.’
After adjusting her pillow against the headrest, Clara shunted into place. When Paul handed her the cup of hot chocolate a mischievous smile spread across her lips. ‘Daddy,’ she said calmly. She only called him Daddy when she was planning to worm something out of him.
She considered his response while taking several quick gulps from her cup. Then it came. ‘Daddy can Nuggy have a look at it?’
‘It’s getting late, dear.’
‘But Nuggy hasn’t seen it yet.’
‘Drink up and go asleep.’
‘But Nuggy will be sad. Wont you Nuggy’
Nuggy needs a kick in the arse, he almost said, but managed to bite his tongue just in time. Milking a hangdog expression to its fullest, she asked again with a pout, ‘Please?’
If she ever discovered the power that such plucking of heartstrings had over him, he would be in for it. ‘Fine,’ Paul relented. From the shelf he retrieved the figurine. ‘Be careful, it’s very delicate.’
Clara placed her cup on a bedside table and eagerly reached for the object. ‘What’s dellygate?’
‘Delicate…it means it breaks easily.’
Turning the item over in her hands, she pulled a face. ‘She don’t look happy, Da.’
Paul smiled. ‘It’s a boy, Pumpkin.’
‘B…But she has long hair and a dress. Boys don’t have long hair and dresses.’
‘Some boys do. When I was younger I had long hair.’
The child’s eyes widened. ‘Really?’
‘Did you wear mammy’s dress?’
Paul tittered. ‘No, Sweetpie. Besides your mammy would give out to me if I did. I think I’d stretch them, don’t you?’
She thought for a moment. ‘I’ve an idea, Da. You can wear mammy’s dresses. She says they are getting too small for her, so you can make them fit again. Can’t you Da?’
‘From the mouths of babes comes truth,’ he muttered, and threw a quick glance towards the door in case Jane was listening.
‘Is it really a boy?’ she asked after closer examination.
‘Yes. St. Michael. When I was young, about your age, I use to have bad dreams too. One day your Gran gave me this to look after me and scare away all the bad monsters and scary dreams.’
‘And all the pirates and birds with big teeth and smelly jumping hands that tug at your feet?’
‘Yes. My mammy put St. Michael on a high shelf in my bedroom to stop any bad things hiding under my bed and in my wardrobe. That’s why he looks so stern. Because he scares away bad things.’
‘And he sticks his sword in them?’
‘Yes. It’s like magic, but not quite.
‘He chops them up and squashes them like this.’ Clara eagerly scrunched Nuggy about the neck while jabbing it with the figurine. ‘Squish, squish, squish.’
‘Whoa, stop it now.’ Paul reached over and took the saint from her. ‘Yes, he sort of does it like that. Remember, it’s very delicate and that’s why he has to live on the shelf and not in your toy box.’
‘Da, can I draw love hearts on him and paint his dress?’
‘Why not, but not tonight. It’s too late. Wait until I’m home from work tomorrow and we’ll do it then. Now lie down.’ He waited until she dive-bombed under the duvet before he knocked off the light. Another yawn escaped him. Wiping his eyes with the cuff of his shirtsleeve, he asked, ‘Are your eyes closed?’
He had to take her word for it. His own eyes had not adjusted to the dark yet. ‘Good girl, now one story then sleep’
‘What is it?’ he said impatiently.
‘I don’t wan’ a story.’
Seizing his chance, he leaned over to peck a goodnight kiss on her forehead. ‘Well if you’re sure. O.K. Night, night, Pumpkin.’
‘No Da, wait!’
‘But I have to clean up.’
‘But Da…I miss when you’re not here. Why are you always going to work? It’s not fair. Can you stay t’marrow?’
‘I wish I didn’t have to go, Pumpkin, but I have to. Come on, we’ve talked about this before.’ Paul was grateful the light was turned off. Once again, the guilt of not spending more time at home churned his stomach.
‘Know what Da? I hope you never, ever, ever have to work again.’ She said seriously. Although he couldn’t see it, he knew her face was scrunched up.
‘I wish I didn’t either,’ he half whispered. Coming from her, the flow of her innocent and sincere words caused a wave of shame to wash over him. She was too young to understand what work was. He tried to explain it to her as best as he could, but she either did not want to listen or she did not grasp what he meant. Perhaps it was both. In her eyes work was something that kept Daddy away from her each day. There was no sense in it. Paul knew it was one of the main reasons she fought to stay awake. Getting to spend a few extra minutes with him, regardless if it was for a story, or for being told off was still a few extra minutes bonus time in her mind. ‘Damn it,’ he cursed inwardly, wishing there was a way to change things.
Jane worked shorter hours and was able to collect Clara from playschool each day. Paul was thankful for that. They had a mother/daughter bond, the type written about so often in magazines and newspapers. He loved seeing them interact with each other. The natural ability of Jane to make even the most mundane things fun was amazing to watch. She could turn something as simple as tidying up into an adventure. He loved catching glimpse of the two of them together in the midst of playing games like hunting for dinosaurs in the garden, or just cuddling up on the sofa. They had a special relationship which he admired so much.
Jane knew he loved Clara every bit as much as she did. His wife often got annoyed whenever she heard old women comment on the connection between mother and child without ever mentioning the father’s role. Paul supposed he was used to it. Even now, fathers were often seen as the secondary parent. He remembered being at a party some time ago and caught the tail end of an argument Jane had with her best friend. What the row originated from, he did not know, but he was taken aback when Jane not only defended his parenting skills, but also gave him the highest of praises as a husband. He knew Jane would never really understand how easy she and Clara made it for him to be a father. He could not ask for a better wife and child.
He considered the little girl beside him: the cheeky little monster. The trouble maker. The hell raiser. The daydreamer. The entertainer. The funny little brawler, crawler, leg kicker, the clever rapscallion. His little girl. He cherished her so much. He sometimes wondered how he could love both Jane and Clara wholeheartedly, but in two completely different ways. Perhaps he never would figure it out. Perhaps, he wasn’t meant too. Some things were best left alone.
‘I’ve and idea, Da,’ Clara said suddenly awakening him from his thoughts. ‘Take the gir… boy to work and he’ll chop and squish work all up so you can stay home. Is that a good idea, Da?’
Paul could feel himself choking up and the last thing he wanted was for his little girl to see him cry. ‘It’s a lovely idea.’ Giving a small prayer of thanks for the darkness, he cleared his throat. As if sensing his thoughts, Clara reached over and gave him a big hug. The small act of kindness turned him to mush.
‘Da, are you crying?’ She asked when her cheek brushed tenderly against his.
‘Naw, Pumpkin, just water from a yawn. Now,’ he sniffled, ‘lie down, close your eyes and I’ll tell you and Nuggy one last story.’ He planted a kiss on her forehead before she buried herself under the covers once more. He told the same story he told every night. The words flowed from him like a mantra. He repeated the tale while his mind wandered. Paul closed his eyes as he recited the yarn. The action caused his eyelids to burn slightly. He welcomed the sensation, it helped to keep him awake.
Jane was channel hopping when she heard the door open with a slight creek. ‘Asleep yet?’
‘Yes Ma,’ Clara said while padding across the floor and climbing up onto the sofa.
‘Not you again,’ Jane said only feeling a fraction of the annoyance she put in her voice as Clara snuggled up beside her. This was the second time in as many weeks that Paul had fallen asleep while telling Clara bedtime stories.
‘I suppose you’re going to make me wake him and order him to bed?’
‘Well Ma, it’s your turn.’